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IP Geolocation Accuracy: How Reliable Is the Technology?

IP geolocation refers to the mapping of an IP address based on a connected device’s geographical location at the time it accessed the Internet. Through this geographical mapping, anyone can pinpoint where a particular user was when he accessed a computer or file stored somewhere within a network for several reasons.

What Are the Uses of IP Geolocation?

Website administrators, security specialists, and law enforcement agents are just some of the beneficiaries of IP geolocation technology.

Website Management

Webmasters often use IP geolocation services to determine the geographic distribution of their website visitors. They often rely on this vital information to tailor-fit content to the site visitors’ needs. They can, for instance, create dynamic banners to ease a potential customer’s product search. With such a banner, a site visitor instantly knows which of the company’s products are available for purchase in his location.

Threat Detection and Attack Prevention

In many cases, cybercrime-related news reports give out details on where an attack originates. This approach can help cybersecurity specialists monitor site visitors from specific countries or regions so they can prevent network intrusion before it even occurs. Zeroing in on visitors from certain IP geolocation reduces the amount of time they would otherwise spend sifting through incoming traffic logs.

Law Enforcement Investigations

Although several cybercriminals often jump from one IP address to another to evade detection and capture, IP geolocation data still gives law enforcement agents a starting point for in-depth investigations.

How Accurate Are IP Geolocation Databases?

As shown above, IP geolocation databases provide various users with accurate information on the website visitors’ locations, including latitude and longitude. These coordinates serve as locatable points of reference at a certain point in time. While users may not get someone’s exact physical address, they do obtain electronic access points.

In general, products have an IP geolocation accuracy of about 90-95% at the country level, while some vendors even claim a 98% IP geolocation accuracy rating. It all depends on the tool’s information source. The IP geolocation accuracy level for any product significantly drops at the city level. There’s a simple reason for that. Mapping IP addresses in cities depend on the location of the closest ISP provider’s network block the connecting device use.

As such, visitors from the suburbs, for instance, may show IP geolocations in the nearest metropolitan area, most likely where the ISP’s office is located. Note, however, that the state and country information is accurate.

The rule of thumb is to collect as much available data as possible and correlate insights to obtain more precise geolocation. That way, pinpointing someone’s street address could be made possible.

In sum, IP geolocation accuracy per information type varies:

  • Country/Region: 98-99%
  • State: 90%
  • City: 85%

IP geolocation accuracy also varies, depending on the type of Internet connection service used — landline or mobile. Landline connection-based IP addresses are generally more accurate than mobile connection-based ones.

While not 100% accurate, IP geolocation is still a reliable source of information. Variation in results occurs due to several reasons. For one thing, some site visitors’ exact locations remain hidden because they use proxies. In other cases, a registrar’s IP address database could contain outdated information. Note that third-party providers typically maintain these databases. As such, IP geolocation accuracy highly depends on how well a data provider manages its database.

Most IP geolocation data providers obtain IP addresses via data mining, while others conduct polls. Here are some methods used to update IP geolocation databases:

  • Registry mining: IP geolocation providers commonly employ this method. Every domain registered for use has a record that ends up in a domain database. Each domain has at least one IP address. When mined, each IP address can be associated with a particular individual or company registrant whose physical address is stored in the domain’s records.
  • User polls: Some IP geolocation data providers update their databases by setting up demonstration sites. These sites show the geolocation information associated with an IP address and ask users to correct errors in their own information.
  • Browser geolocation API: Third-party IP geolocation data providers use web APIs to ask users to share their location.

Limitations of IP Geolocation

While IP geolocation accuracy has greatly improved in the recent years, the technology still has its limitations. We still see instances where the wrong postal code or city within a metropolitan area is given. Some addresses come with a wide geographic area, making it hard to pinpoint precisely where a user is. Some devices can also use several IP addresses that are not in a particular database and so remain unmappable.

Another notable limitation is the fact that registrants may not update their information with their domain registrars. As a result, their IP geolocation information immediately loses its accuracy. That is particularly true for businesses that move to new physical locations.

IP geolocation is a reliable method of assigning physical locations to IP addresses. Most IP geolocation tools and applications, as a minimum, include country, state, and city information. A few offer additional metadata and multiple IP address lookup features. However, IP geolocation accuracy varies with the provider. Inaccuracy often causes significant issues. For this reason, users need to choose an IP geolocation product that provides as accurate location data as possible.

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